{136} On living the mary-sue life

Mary-Sue: an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment. [wikipedia]

The term mary-sue has a very long standing history of being used in a negative context. Lobbing the accusation at a female author that an original character (OC) is a mary-sue has been a vitriolic way of shutting down writers in the name of “quality writing.” The assumption has been that if a character is a mary-sue, it is de-facto terribly written.

Which is an exact reverse of how most other literary criticism works.

Do you wonder why that is? Do you wonder why the mary-sue threat is only viable against female authors? Do you wonder why male characters who have the same qualities as a bona-fide mary-sue never get criticized the same way?

I’ll make this easy: mary-sue criticism is a misogynistic form of oppression used to delegitimize both female characters and female authors.

Admittedly, that is not the only interpretation of mary-sue criticism. That’s because there is very little consensus on what “mary-sue” actually defines. Reading either the Wikipedia entry or the Fanlore entry on the term shows how the term has been conceptualized and, more recently, reframed over the years. Speaking as a fanfiction reader/writer, I can tell you that neither of those entries fully represents the overwhelming number of discussions, arguments, and wankage that has taken place about what a mary-sue actually is. Opinions are not just varied, they are held very tightly.

However, I feel the history of how the term has been used against writers is pretty damning. I don’t see similar criticism being leveled against characters such as Indiana Jones, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Batman, Luke Skywalker (c’mon) or Dirk Pitt (seriously omg have you read any Clive Cussler???). I don’t see male writers being chastised for writing such characters.

Let’s look at the story of Christopher Paolini, who started his Eragon series when he was 13 years old. A fantasia of self-instert mary-sueness, the book was nonetheless valued so highly by his parents that they self-published it, believing in it so much that they put him on the road in a bizarre author tour. Where Carl Hiassen’s stepson found the book and loved it so much that Hiassen brought it to the attention of his major publisher. Sure, success like that is always an outlier, but I want you to imagine for just a second that the story was written about a girl fairy princess by a young teenage girl — generally speaking, how likely would her parents have taken it seriously? And even if they had, would a publishing deal ever have happened? Maybe, sure; maybe, but the odds are far, far lower.

Meanwhile literary criticism of Paolini’s series is (justifiably) luke-warm, but nowhere at no time has Paolini been subject to the kind of scathing attacks leveled on young female authors for writing heroic female characters.

Makes ya’ wonder…or not, really, I mean we all know what’s at play here. *sigh*

Another interesting point is that men who write/create incredibly perfect or amazing female characters are not subject to this criticism either. Neither Buffy Summers nor Zoë have been subject to being torn apart at mary-sues, or Joss Whedon ripped on for how he portrayed them; nor has Ripley or Sarah Conner or Lyra Silvertongue or Xena (I know I’m using mostly tv/movie characters here, but — quick! — think of a super popular action-adventure book or series staring a woman. No, it’s okay, I’ll wait. Oh, right, Hunger Games). Does anyone honestly doubt that Lisbeth Salander wouldn’t have come under serious fire if Stieg Larsson had been a woman? Oh come on, now. You know the answer to that.

Personally, I think female authors should take the term back, and stop using it as a weapon to shut up other female authors. Bad writing should be criticized on its own (lack of) merit; stories should not be labeled “bad writing” simply because they feature empowered and powerful female characters written by women. Honestly, who gives a flying fuck if a character is an idealized self-insert whatever if the story is FUN/INTERESTING and WELL WRITTEN?

Which leads me back around to my NaNoWriMo project.

Wolves of Boston is (going to be) what could very conceivably be trashed as a mary-sue epic. The lead female character is a female middle-aged artist who is successful at her career, smart, and courageous. Is she someone I wish I could be? Sure. I hope she’s also someone other female readers will identify with too. That’s the whole point of a character like that, to be so awesome and interesting that readers will want to be absorbed in her story.

My inspiration for going in this direction with the story is the famous novel, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, released in 1975. It was certainly self-insert fic (a fact Peters admitted in her later years), featuring an “older” heroine who was opinionated, stubborn, brilliant, plain looking, and almost always right about everything.

It was a huge success because in 1975, romance characters who were not 18, virginal, naive, and “waiting to be saved” and also “waiting to be married” were thin on the ground. Amelia Peabody might actually be the first romance novel heroine of her kind in the modern era, honestly. The book was a instant smash hit and it launched a series based on the lead character that lasted from 1975 to 2006.

I’m not really planning to copy the book’s premise nor do I expect to replicate the quality of it, much less its success. No, the reason it is an inspiration for Wolves of Boston is that it showed me a female author can write the book she wants to read and that she wants to star in while making it a great story.

I waded into those waters when I wrote Wolves of Harmony Heights, whose heroine, Liz, is def. not self-insert (I am not now and never have been a single mother working at a gas station) but does fit some other “mary-sue” criteria. I mean, she bags TWO hot dudes and also manages to [redacted, but she’s awesome, trust me]. Diligence Elisabeth Able Hart is downright amazing, and I’m happy to own that.

Now, though, I’m jumping off that cliff with both feet, Saint Elizabeth Peters preserve me. Charlotte Gouchenour (of the Boston Gouchenour werewolf pack), known as “Luna C” the world-renown performance artist, is admired and respected and sexy. She’s a problem solver. She doesn’t have lavender eyes or anime hair but hell, she could if she wanted to.

I would not be able to have the courage to do this if it weren’t for the friends I have who supported me along the way, some of whom have been asking me to write a “mary-sue epic” for years now. They have a lot more faith in my writing than I do, honestly.


Originally published at ::::KimBoo York.